When a Little Dog Attacks a Big Dog

Little dogs, just like big ones, can wreak dangerous havoc.


In response to our lead article on big dog-little dog attacks in the August issue, which stated that “it is never your fault if a larger dog attacks your littler one,” Janette Hankins of Maynardville, Tennessee, wrote, “I very seldom comment but feel that I must jump in. One day we were walking our two Great Danes. Both were on leash. A small dog ran out from his yard, crossed the street, and attacked one of our dogs. Our Dane was bitten badly enough that he subsequently needed veterinary care, but he did nothing — until the small dog turned on my husband and began to attack him. (He, too, then required medical attention.) That is when our dog picked up the little dog in his mouth and tossed the dog away. We rushed both dogs to the vet, and she stitched up our dog without any issues. The little dog died later that night.

“A neighbor of the small dog’s owner saw the entire incident and agreed with us — this was the fault of the small dog. It was unleashed, and its owner had violated the leash law by not making sure he was contained in a responsible manner. We felt terrible, but had the small dog’s owner been more responsible, this wouldn’t have happened. My Dane was NOT aggressive and never went after a small dog after that incident.”

Ms. Hankins’s experience is far from an isolated incident. Said another reader, Teresa Brewer of Belton, Missouri: “This past weekend I was at the vet for my Rottweiler’s annual checkup. She has a strong prey drive — she hunts rabbits and squirrels in the yard, and I would not trust her with cats or small dogs. I had her on a short leash and was being diligent about maintaining control. We did just fine until a shih tzu charged us, snapping and baring its teeth. That’s when my Rotti lunged at the little dog, nearly dragging me out of my seat. A vet tech jumped up to help, and we moved my dog into the exam room and shut the door. I got really irritated when I heard the other owner laughing in the hallway. He would not have thought it was funny if I hadn’t been able to restrain my 106-pound pet.”

Geri Durka-Pelok of Cabot, Vermont, wholeheartedly concurs, emailing us that her own large dogs have been attacked by smaller ones and that a follow-up article on getting owners of small dogs to train their pets “might just save everyone a painful situation.”

Ms. Durka-Pelok, we couldn’t agree more. As Ms. Hankins so aptly wrote: “Small dog owners have a responsibility to 1) socialize their small dogs to larger dogs so they don’t behave in an aggressive manner to the larger dog (often out of fear) and 2) keep their small dog responsibly contained. I certainly agree,” she says, “that if you have a large dog you must socialize it to smaller ones and must be equally responsible. But don’t give the small dog (and its owner) a ‘pass’ to attack a big dog while the big dog does nothing to protect him or herself. All dog owners have those basic responsibilities — regardless of the size of their pet.”

We clearly should have said this ourselves — and also made clear, as these Your Dog readers have, that untrained and unsocialized little dogs with an aggressive streak can cause serious problems, too. Why is it all too easy to inadvertently let it go under the radar?

One reason is that “big dogs in general can do more damage than little dogs,” says the head of the Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic, Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. “A little dog can do a lot of damage,” she says, “but the jaw of an aggressive German shepherd can likely do more damage than the jaw of an equally aggressive Chihuahua.” Thus, it’s smaller dogs attacked or maimed by a big dog who are more apt to land in the emergency room.

“I see it less in the behavior clinic, too,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Most people can pick up an aggressive little dog and stuff it under their arms. They’re more easily managed by avoidance, so there is less incentive to treat the problem. You can’t pick up a Great Dane when the dog is starting to act aggressively.”

Still, she says, “everybody needs to keep their dog under control, and the techniques to prevent inter-dog aggression are the same, regardless of the size of the dog. It’s unconscionable for people with little dogs to let their pets go around menacing other dogs — or people.”

How problems arise

A misunderstanding about the level of aggressiveness that can be triggered in a small dog combined with the misperception that small — particularly very small — dogs are accessories rather than animals sometimes leads to problems, the doctor says. Even the tiniest of dogs are dogs, with the same basic needs as other dogs. Ignoring their requirements for early socialization, proper training, and exercise leads to issues around misbehavior, the doctor says.

Consider, for instance, that some people get a kick out of a small dog’s aggressive moves. The smallness combined with the tough demeanor strikes them as adorable. “It’s not adorable,” says Dr. Borns-Weil. “So much of aggression is fear,” and there’s nothing cute about a dog’s feeling afraid and needing to defend herself. Seeing fearful or otherwise out-of-control aggression as cute neglects the very real emotional distress the dog is experiencing.”

Some small dogs might be particularly apt to engage in aggression resulting from fear, snapping at people and sometimes even charging them. Why? It’s often because they might be less likely to be respected than a larger dog from the get-go. “People are more likely to impose on little dogs by petting them and staring at them. They don’t watch for shifts in their body language the way they might with a large dog, so the dog has to start barking or snapping,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. More subtle warnings about boundaries being crossed simply fail to resonate. With a large dog, most people automatically approach cautiously, giving wide berth. But with small dogs, the doctor says, “there’s always that giant hand that comes down from the sky to pet them. They’re more defenseless against that. There’s also a tendency to treat them like babies and believe they therefore must want to be handled and cooed over, yet that’s not always the case, just as it isn’t for larger dogs. They may be small, but they are still adult animals.” And their overall fearfulness and need to defend their space is sometimes going to get acted out not only on people but also on larger dogs.

Because little dogs are less threatening, their owners “need to work doubly hard to make sure they understand their pets’ body language and provide them with the tools they need to be able to navigate the world,” Dr. Borns-Weil continues. “You also have to protect them from people crossing their boundaries or perimeters.”

A multi-pronged approach

Owners of small dogs should work to socialize them in a number of ways. The first is to remain aware that they do not always want interaction with others — other dogs, other people. If your dog has a tendency to start to snap or growl when other living beings approach, no matter what the species, it means she does not want to socialize. Forcing her to in the belief that she will just “get used to it” is what animal behaviorists refer to as flooding. It will not desensitize her to interacting with others; it will only sensitize her further. It’s okay to tell people not to pet her because she doesn’t like it, and also to keep her out of dog parks where other dogs are allowed to roam freely and might come up to her without her permission.

As with any dog, teaching a small one to interact comfortably with people and others of their species means starting with one dog, or one person, at a time — setting up planned encounters with people and their pets. Good candidates are people you know to be very gentle and respectful and who have soft voices. Supply them with treats to throw at your little dog’s feet without staring directly at her. Over time, as you add a few more gentle dogs and people into the mix, she will begin to generalize the good feelings that have come with the interactions you have selected to interactions at large. It takes time — and patience.

The second part of adjusting a little dog to her world is to have expectations of her. No person or dog thrives in a vacuum where there aren’t rules about the right way to behave. A lack of structure, in fact, makes any dog extremely anxious, no matter what her size. A dog wants to know what the deal is — what you like and what won’t fly — so she can adjust better and have a better bond with you. Teach a little dog to sit for her food, to come to you when called, to refrain from jumping on people, and so on. You are not punishing her by doing so; you are teaching her about how to get on in life, how to act decently so she will be treated decently.

“You are providing them with tools they need to navigate their world,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “They are just as much of a dog as a German shepherd or a Rottweiler.” It does them a disservice not to acclimate them to the fact that there is certain behavior that is acceptable and certain behavior that is unacceptable. “The positive reinforcement that comes with training — treats, warm praise — makes the world more predictable and clear for a dog,” she adds. “They crave that; it opens up the world of communication between owner and dog” in that the consistency allows the dog to master the environment in ways that are both safe and agreeable to others.

Along with respect for their space and training, little dogs need exercise and mental engagement. It is their right to have some fun. “No, you’re not going to walk a mini-dachshund as far as a field-trained Labrador retriever,” comments Dr. Borns-Weil. “But they still need exercise that is sufficient for them.” It’s not enough to let them go out the back door to piddle in the yard a couple of times a day. Spend time with her; play with her; take her to agility classes.

Treating a little dog like a dog by showing her the ropes of agreeable behavior, protecting her from situations she finds scary, and meeting her needs for a stimulating environment through exercise and mental engagement will go a long way to tamping down on any aggressive tendencies. But for some little dogs, just as for some big ones, other measures need to be put in place.

If your little dog acts aggressively despite your best socializing efforts

Some little dogs, just like some larger ones, are not always able to behave appropriately when given the freedom to react without your oversight. In such cases, it becomes incumbent on you to protect others from your pet. That means not letting your dog run freely in a park with other dogs, but instead keeping her on a leash until you, perhaps with the help of a trainer or behaviorist, feel confident that she will come back to you when called. It has to go gradually. The first several trips back to the park after training should include leaving a long line attached to the dog’s collar or harness so you can get hold of her more easily if she acts aggressively.

Another option, if you fear your dog will remain too reactive, is to keep a muzzle on her. “Muzzles can be a ticket to freedom for unpredictable dogs who enjoy being out,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “It’s not cruel to put a basket muzzle on one. They can eat, drink water, and pant with it on. And really, why confine the whole dog when you need to confine only the first few inches?”

For a basket muzzle to be tolerated, Dr. Borns-Weil cautions, a dog has to systematically be desensitized. “You can’t just stick it on and expect the dog to be okay with it,” she says.

For more information on how to get an aggressive dog of any size used to a basket muzzle, she recommends www.MuzzleUpProject.com. It’s an education project in San Francisco that shows dogs of varying sizes having fuller lives with muzzles rather than having their days restricted out of their owners’ fear that they will bite or otherwise attack. Owners of little dogs might particularly like the video of Chihuahua mix Earl getting trained to accept having a muzzle on so he can live a fuller life.


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